This weeks minor deluge of major patches to Windows reminds me of the complexity of the whole patching process, and the peril that comes with stepping out of line.
Stepping out of line is just the right description for the Windows XP SP3 gang at TheHotfix.net. Impatient with Microsofts reluctance to build a cumulative update for XP since SP2, this private body has tried to do the work itself. Its not something you should try at home.
Now there certainly have been a lot of updates since SP2, some of them significant. I find when I install a new system from install disks that it can take a very long time to update from Windows Update post-SP2. For a normal user, this can be a significant period of vulnerability. For that reason, Ive discussed the idea of creating an update-only mode for Windows, but for the present thats just an idea.
It would be nice for Microsoft to maintain a running single major update that could be downloaded and run offline, and for Windows 2000 as well as Windows XP. For businesses there is an answer of sorts: Windows SUS (Server Update Services) Server could allow a network admin to keep computers off the Internet and update directly from the local update server (although that begs the question of what is protecting the SUS server). End users could individually download all the updates and apply them manually, or slipstream an SP2 installation so that it installs up-to-date, but this is far too complex and resource-intensive for normal users.
So TheHotfix.net has decided to maintain its own running update and call it SP3. First, just to get this out of the way, its use of logos and fonts is, at times, obviously reminiscent of Microsoft intellectual property, and the file it distributes is an illegal redistribution of Microsoft updates. Microsoft has a history of not vigorously pursuing such violations, but you should know its not Microsoft and its not from the official source.
The gateway link from TheHotfix.net to Softpedia, where the actual (195MB, as of today) ZIP file is, has a warning:
Below is a link to a package of hotfixes that will possibly be in SP3. Its completely unofficial from Microsoft and is just a collection of fixes said to be in SP3 at some point.
Let me make it clear that it is NOT Service Pack 3, but rather just fixes that will probably go into the official package from Microsoft when they start building SP3.
** USE AT YOUR OWN RISK AND ONLY IF YOU ARE A WINDOWS EXPERT **
Personally, I think the awkward use of the phrase “unofficial from Microsoft” will be misleading to some people who will conclude that it is from Microsoft, but unofficial, rather than “not officially from Microsoft,” which really means not official and not from Microsoft. Bottom line: This is from some schmoe, and you dont know who he is.
Microsoft finally acknowledged the presence of this unofficial update with a posting to one of its support newsgroups that advises users not to use the phony SP3.
Microsoft says in the posting that the faux SP3 not only has officially released updates, but “hotfixes” that Microsoft releases to much more limited crowds. TheHotfix.net claims that all the updates are downloaded directly from microsoft.com, but its hard to say whos telling the truth here, or if theres just a misunderstanding.
Personally, Id say its safer to take Microsofts advice, especially since the “official” advice on the “unofficial” update from its compiler is that you should not do any kind of mass update, but just install/reboot them one at a time. So all that the download has done is to save you some download convenience, potentially at the risk of downloading the wrong thing.
Remember, even if the guy is telling the truth, these are all the updates, not just the ones you need. Its hard to tell if you need any specific update in the ZIP file without extracting and running it. Big-time savings!
Real patch management vendors do this the right way, by maintaining a database of updates and testing systems to see if they need the update. You do have to trust the patch management vendor to do a good job of this—thats why you need to choose an established vendor with a track record (like this one).
But for the home or very small business user, such software is a luxury well beyond the budget. These hotfix hackers have a point, and Microsoft would do well to preempt them with more frequent “official” update rollups.
Security Center Editor Larry Seltzer has worked in and written about the computer industry since 1983.
More from Larry Seltzer